Alli’s Intrepid Journey

In mid-January, my furry daughter PurrJo had to be put to sleep due to illness, so I decided that I deserved a holiday and would give myself something to look forward to. There was one part of New Zealand I had never been to - the Far North – so I decided to go there, combining that with time in Auckland, catching up with friends. I went online, typed “Bay of Islands” into Google and took it from there.

I found a 3-day tour which covered the places I wanted to go. I noted the “no wheelchair access” advisory, but thought “that’s ok, I don’t use a wheelchair”. When I booked, I let them know that I had a physical disability and would need assistance climbing on and off coaches, etc but was careful to state “no lifting” as I know people are paranoid about that. A phone conversation with a woman from the agency the week before I left put my mind at rest. She assured me that all drivers would be advised of my need of assistance.

Just getting to the tour coach was challenging. I was advised that, as my hotel was in a narrow side-street off Queen St, I would have to meet the coach around the corner on Queen. Arriving at the hotel, I saw that there was a steep incline up to Queen St. My chances of getting unaided to the pick-up point were zilch. A friend who works for Combined Taxis there said he’d sort out a taxi and driver to help me. He did. Even the part of Queen St I had to wait on was steep, so I got the driver to tow me and my luggage to a nearby seat. So at 6.45am I was sitting there hoping someone would arrive to collect me! Eventually a chap in a shuttle arrived...he could have got to my hotel! Grrr! We were dropped off at the bus depot behind SkyCity. I was shown where to queue for the coach. When I reached the driver with his clipboard I quipped “I’m the one they warned you about”.

I boarded the coach and was seated in the front row. I quickly got chatting to a Canadian woman, Francie, who was sitting behind me. By the time we stopped for morning tea, where she gave me some help getting a cuppa, we were firm friends. I asked the young Turkish woman who had been sitting beside me, if she minded swapping seats with Francie. She was happy to do so.

Arriving in Paihia we had a short stop, during which we were told to get vouchers for the tours and activities were would be doing from the tour desk. In true Murphy’s Law fashion, my tickets needed to be collected from an agency across the road. We only had about ten minutes, so Francie kindly ran across for me and came back with everything sorted. It was about 12.30pm and I was starving, but we were herded back on the coach to go to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. When we got there I immediately noticed how uneven the ground was, and felt quite unsteady, clinging to my walking stick for dear life! The Maori guide noticed and asked if I’d like to use a wheelchair. Francie, who hadn’t pushed a chair before, was enthusiastic, so off we went – bumpity-bump. I got out of the chair and removed my shoes to enter the whare (meeting house). After a short spiel of NZ history, we went outside and watched a short powhiri, then went to see Busby’s house where the Treaty had been signed. It was very interesting and I wish we had had longer there. Outside again, the group was to go down to the water’s edge to see a waka. A steep, unsealed, path lead down to it. I took one look and said “I don’t think so, Francie”. So we followed a sealed path which lead to the gift shop and car park. We had to negotiate a turnstile, which was an interesting experience in a wheelchair, and arrived around the front of our coach just as our group was walking towards it...we had beaten them back!

Back in Paihia, I had spied a helicopter which offers scenic flights over the Bay. Francie hadn’t been in a helicopter before and thought she may get airsick, but I told her they are very smooth, so she decided to come with me, after some much-needed lunch! It was a brilliantly fine day and the flight out to Cape Reinga and back was spectacular. We had our photo taken in front of the chopper before the flight, it’s a great souvenir. Francie loved the flight and was very glad she came with me.

Next day I found myself on a coach with only some of the group from the day before and with new people added. Sadly Francie wasn’t amongst them, but we met up later in the day and arranged to have dinner together that evening. My group was taken to Gumdiggers Park in Awanui where processing kauri gum had been a major industry in the 1800s. As I was about to get off the coach, the driver called to me “Alli, can your drive a mobility scooter?” I could! The scooter was brought to the steps of the coach and on I got. Only then I realised that I wouldn’t have had a hope of walking the track through the gum trees. The track was very uneven, with steep drops on each side in some places. Being on the scooter was like doing an off-road car rally! It was a hoot, an exhilarating ride! I drove carefully, mindful of the people walking ahead of me. I was able to stop and read the plaques along the route. It was a really interesting place, and one I had never heard of, so I enjoyed playing tourist there. Obviously they must get a number of people with mobility difficulties visiting there, but I was very impressed that they had a scooter available. Without it I would probably have had to wait on the coach.

I had to pass on the afternoon activity...boogie boarding down giant sand dunes at Ninety Mile Beach. I wasn’t the only one who gave it a miss though. I was impressed that the driver/tour guide made a point of asking me if I wanted a go. There was a 20 metre climb up the dune before you had to lie on the board to zoom down...no thanks. I stayed in my seat and enjoyed watching other people have a go. It was very entertaining.

We travelled to Cape Reinga where I got off the coach and had a wander but did not walk out to the lighthouse as it was quite a walk and also steep in places. I could see the lighthouse from where I stood and am pleased to have made it to the top of the North Island.

On the last day of the tour, I boarded a bright yellow catamaran to sail around the Bay of Islands. Once again it was lovely weather, and the sea was quite calm. I was enthralled when the boat stopped and several bottle-nosed dolphins including baby ones, came alongside. They were gorgeous. We travelled through the Hole in the Rock are saw lots of different birds. After lunch at one of the bays, we went on to Russell where I left the boat and, after a wander around and a little “retail therapy”, I boarded a small bus for a “mini tour”. It was interesting to see the different houses (some worth several $million) and to hear the history of NZ’s first capital from the tour guide/driver. Afterwards I caught a ferry back to Paihia and joined the coach for our return to Auckland.

I spent 3 more days in Auckland catching up with friends and visiting Waiheke Island with my friend Sue. I came home with a real sense of accomplishment, mainly that I had done all that I had without falling over once! I had taken more care than usual, knowing that the Far North wouldn’t be the most convenient place to come a cropper!

Interestingly, none of my fellow travellers questioned the fact that I was travelling alone although I was variously labelled “obviously very independent” and “an inspiration”, which amused me. People were quick to assist where it was obvious help was needed. In hindsight, if I’d known how hilly some of the ground was up there, I would have taken my walker which has brakes! Still it’s good to have had an adventure and to have lived to tell the tale!

Allison Franklin

March 2015